Bouchercon 2012—Day One: Swag, Habits, True Crime, and Thrillsies

Poetry Wednesday is on a one-week hiatus, because, if you haven’t heard, I’m away at Bouchercon.

I’m sure you’re all very disappointed, and please feel free to send me limericks expressing your feelings of abandonment and/or my callous betrayal.

Seriously.  Best one gets a book from my copious swag bag.


This morning, before the first panel began, I met five librarians (including a head of reference services with pink hair from Mt. Vernon , Ohio, and a legal librarian whose card I will treasure as a precious resource) four writers (including two who were as lost as I was walking from our hotel to the conference hotel two blocks away), and a fellow blogger (we mastered the WiFi labyrinth together).

I was also rockin’ some serious crazed-poodle bangs from the moment I hit fresh air  and the backscratcher Janie slipped into my bag didn’t cut it as a comb.  Gotta love Ohio humidity.

Upon registration, I was given this:

Which contained this:

Which I schlepped around all day.  Remember day before yesterday, when I was kvetching about the weight of The Bag?  I take it all back (oh, my back).

If ever there was an incentive to start powerlifting again . . .

Regardless, I attended three panels—would have done four, but I ended up having lunch so my stomach wouldn’t drown out the speakers—not including the Bouchercon 101 that I attended because I was there and I knew it would be fun.  A few people came in, said, “Oh, I’ve been to Bouchercon already,” and left but a lot of us stayed and learned interesting things about this year’s conference (the evening activities are all free!  you must be present at the banquet to win the silent auction!  the hotel Starbucks is closed on weekends!).  Well worth it.

Here’s just some of the panel highlights (powerlifting and shorthand, right, making a list) .  Please for to note that this is what I think I wrote down about what I think I heard at the time, and it’s easier and more relaxing to assume that I’ve misquoted everyone but captured the jist of what they probably said:

Day in the Life: authors tell us about their writing habits and schedules

I’m describing this panel in a bit more depth because a) I’d just finished my second diet Pepsi of the day and therefore was able to write much more quickly than usual; b) like every other wannabe, I was fascinated by how Real Writers™ write and; c)  it was a terrific time.

The panelists were Cornelia Read, who says her excellent Madeline Dare series is “WASP noir” ; Gerald Elias, who writes a fantastic series about a retired violin teacher; Anne Emery, who writes a lawyer-priest partnership (sort of) series set in Nova Scotia that I have to find for my MIL; R.D. Cain, who writes the Steve Nastos series which I must read and can’t right now because his books were stopped at the border; and Charles Finch, who, when asked, said “I wrote Fifty Shades of Gray!” to much applause, but who really writes Victorian mysteries.  The panel was moderated through the comedic stylings of Dana Haynes (“Only one of us is armed, and I won’t tell you who.”)

On the writing process:

Ms. Emery can’t write without music.  Even if it isn’t related to what she’s working on, she says, there’s something about it that gets things flowing.   “It’s the only thing I have in common with Albert Einstein.”

In contrast, Mr. Elias, who is a professional musician and director, says that he can’t write to music because he ends up listening to it critically, which is too distracting.  He does most of his inspired writing in a little notebook he carries around for the purpose, before writing it all out.

Mr. Finch follows Margaret Atwood’s advice and writes one page the minute he gets out of bed:  “I write really fast, ’cause I have to go to the bathroom . . .”

Ms. Read:  “First, I go on Facebook for four hours, then have coffee . . . I live in abject terror until a week before deadline, then I take a lot of Ritalin.”   But she also says that every hour before noon is worth four hours after noon.

Mr. Cain, who is a police officer with a small child at home says that the last thing he wants to do is sit down in front of a blank screen without knowing exactly what he wants to write.  So he pre-plans throughout his day (“While I’m mowing . . . driving . . . arresting somebody.”), working on scenes or half scenes until he knows what he wants to do the next time he takes the time to write.  He writes out of sequence but because he plans so much, he knows where it all fits.

Taking off work to write:

Mr. Elias:  “I’ve never done that, but it’s a great idea.”

Mr. Haynes (who was a journalist):  “We didn’t have writers’ block—we had unemployment.”

Mr. Finch, in explaining that a writer is always writing:  “Every writer is only paying half-attention to things all the time.”

What if you need a kickstart?

Mr. Finch:  “If I’m stuck on my plot, I run as far away as possible.”

Ms. Read: “I’ve learned to pay attention when things get gummed up—often my mind is working on a problem . . . Or I’m being lazy and I don’t want to work . . . Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference . . . But there are triggers that come out of nothing.”

Mr. Elery:  “Even just a name . . . Lydia Humdinger.”
Mr. Hayes:  “Lydia Humdinger?  Too many responses . . . Sorry, comedy headache.”

Mr. Cain:  “Just two of three words together can take you to a place . . . and you can watch that scene . . .”

Do you consider writing a second job or a hobby or what?

Mr. Finch:  “I used to feel guilty [for writing all day], but then I found out that all my friends with regular jobs were just goofing around all day.”

Ms. Read:  “I started to write because I wanted that sense of self.”   She also said that writing between children and work gave her a structure that she misses sometimes:  “The friction of needing to value writing time is very precious.”

Mr. Elias said that when people heard he was a musician, they would ask him, “Oh.  So, what do you do for a living?”  He says it’s the same with writing.

Mr. Cain:  “For me, it’s a luxury . . . it’s a hobby, an indulgence and a way to use your imagination.”

What do you use to write?

Ms. Read:  “I use a hovercraft.”

On Main Characters:

Mr. Cain:  “I think about what I would do in a certain situation and then I make him do the opposite.”

Mr. Elery:  “He’s a source of stress relief for me.”


Mr. Finch:  “Writing has made me a better husband—I didn’t start at a very high level . . . ”

Mr. Haynes about Mr. Cain:  “Watch out—he’s got a four year-old and a gun.”

Ms. Read:  “It’s like a movie and I try to keep the choreography right.”

Mr. Haynes says he casts his novels—pins up photos and listens to voices for his characters so when he writes, the character voices are distinctive to him.

Murder in the Headlines: authors discuss true crimes

The panelists were Jackie Barrett, a medium who acts as an intuitive detective; Thomas Cook, who co-wrote a book with and about Jeffrey Dahmer’s father that I remember very well; Jane Turzillo, author of Wicked Women of Northeast Ohio, and Rick Porrello, who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia and Kill the Irishmen, which became a movie.

There was no moderator for this panel—he and a fifth panelist were listed in the program but were absent—and it wasn’t the most organized, but bits and pieces grabbed me:

Mr. Cook said that true crime readers were the only readers who don’t expect a happy ending:  “They like really depressing books.”   He said this was encouraging because it meant that he could write darker novels and there would be a readership for them.  He also said that there is a place for the hard truths of life—he said that the roads to the site of the Battle of Verdun, where so many lost their lives, is now lined with advertisements for Disneyland.  There’s nothing wrong with Mickey Mouse, but maybe we could remember that darker things happen, too.

He was asked near the end whether he’d thought of writing a book about Jeffrey Dahmer, and not just his father.  He said that writing about Dahmer would be like writing “about a shark eating something. . . then eating something else . . . then something else.  He was a psychopath and not very interesting.”   But writing about Lionel Dahmer, about how he felt and dealt with being the father of that psychopath—that was interesting.

Ms. Turzillo said that she loved crime and she loved history, so writing her book came out of that.  After she chose her topic, she “started in on every librarian in Northeast Ohio.”  She also hastened to say that it wasn’t a how-to.

Mr. Porello, who is a Cleveland police chief, commented that he hated crime.  But he was fascinated by the Cleveland mafia, so he started writing things down.  It took him nine years to write his first book, and after he was done, he said he was never going to do it again . . . until he held the bound book in his hand . . .

He said that his wife and his mother were concerned that it was dangerous to write about dangerous people, but when he asked  some of his contacts, he was told, “The gangsters who are going to be the most upset with you are the ones who aren’t in your book.

Mr. Cook followed this up by talking a little about being sued by convicted criminals—which happens all the time over the most frivolous, innocuous things.  But he quoted a lawyer friend who once said, “If you call a pig a hog, are you that far off?”

Ms. Barrett had some useful advice for interviewing criminals without getting sued later:  “Tape everything.”

Fifty shades of Cozy:  pushing the limits—not your mama’s cozy anymore

On my way to this panel, I met up with Matt Clemons, who is a writer and also patron at my library.  We talked for a bit and he said, “I’m off to hear Connie Archer talk about food!”

“That’s great!”  I said.  “I’m off to hear Catriona McPherson talk about sex!”

Actually, I was off to hear Dorothy St. James, Duffy Brown, Clare O’Donohue, and moderator Rosemary Harris talk about the new definition of cozy mysteries, and Catriona McPherson talk about anything she wanted to—I love her wit and her accent.

What is and is not cozy about your books?

Ms. Brown, who is bubbly and lovely and doesn’t breathe much when she talks and was wearing a fetching orange boa for the occasion,  said her two main characters still hated each other but she’s “planning a loooong series where they do a lot more than hate each other” and the book has a dog, but no cat and her characters sit on their porch and solve mysteries and “drink many, many, many martinis.”

This, and a bit more, was said in one long animated rush, after which the moderator grinned and asked in the nicest possible way, “Do amphetamines play a part in your books?”  and I decided that I’d found my MIL’s birthday present, because wow.

Ms. McPherson said that the only thing in her books that wasn’t  usual for cozies was that her main character, who is a married lady (if not a Lady) of the 1920s Scotland upper class,  is solving mysteries for the money.

Ms Harris: “If she’s married, then there’s no sex?”
Ms. McPherson:  “Oh, no.”

Ms. O’Donohue said that her books include profanity, off-page sex, and are set in a big city.  “There’s no murder.  There’s arson, because arson is so much more Christmassy.”

Ms. St. James said her books were about a Southern  gardener who works for the White House, so there’s secret service and assassination attempts.

On sex:

Ms. O’Donohue:  “He arrives in the evening and leaves in the morning.  They’re not playing scrabble.”  She claimed that the main character in her new series was going to have really, really bad, boring sex, just because the first time is always so wonderful and fulfilling in all the other stories and she wants to try something different.

Ms. McPherson:  “I always said I wouldn’t write a sex scene until my parents were dead.  But I just did.”

Ms. Brown, who used to write romance:  “I did it for twenty years, I’m tired of writing it.”  She also said that in romance, once the couple meets, that’s it—there’s no one else for them.  But cozy heroines can date around.  (Ms. Harris:  “Cozy slut!”)

On how much of their stories are autobiographical:

Ms. Brown:  “My characters always think of all the good lines I wish I could have thought to say  in time . . . ”

Ms. O’Donohue: “All the sex!”
Ms. Harris:  “That’s really . . . sad—weren’t you going to write a bad sex scene?”

At the end, there was a pop-quiz for the panelists, including their character’s porn names, safewords, and euphemisms galore.

And everyone agreed with Ms. St. James that thrillsies should be the name for today’s cozies—though ‘suburban noir’ comes close.

Ms. Brown:  “The lines are blurred and that’s good.  You want to keep it fresh, you want to keep it new.”

It’s about six-thirty here, and I’m about to board a trolley to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame for Bouchercon’s Opening Ceremonies.

Now aren’t you sorry you aren’t here?


Note to Sunny:  How did this get in my suitcase?